Umami: the 5th taste

Ever heard the term umami? This taste, discovered several decades ago, is now one of five basic tastes, but what does it contribute?

Umami has now been added to the four basic tastes we know as saltiness, sweetness, bitterness and sourness. In this article, we explore this fifth taste, which is still largely unknown but is frequently found in dishes we eat on a daily basis.

The Japanese origins of umami

The term ‘umami’ is derived from a Japanese word that means ‘savoury taste’. Kikunae Ikeda, a researcher at Tokyo’s Imperial University, named this flavour after tasting a dashi broth in 1908, a Japanese dish made with Kombu seaweed and used to make miso soup.

Because he could not pinpoint the exact flavour of the broth, Kikuna Ikeda used the term ‘umami’ to describe this fifth taste. It was later recognised scientifically in the 1980s. 

What is umami?  

Umami refers to a flavour that is pleasant, filling and lingers in the mouth. This flavour stimulates salivation and activates the pleasure centres of the brain. Although it is commonly associated with Japanese cuisine, it can be found in the cooking of all cultures around the world. It is present in concentrated products (meat stock) or fermented products like soy sauce, as well as mature cheeses like Parmesan.

As a result, umami is frequently associated with salty flavours. This distinct flavour is derived primarily from amino acids and nucleotides found in proteins and RNA*: glutamic acid (present in cured ham, Parmesan and dried seaweed), disodium guanylate (dried mushrooms and meat, among other things), and disodium inosinate (seafood).

Foods with a high umami content

Umami flavour can be found in a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, etc), cheeses (parmesan, Roquefort), meats (particularly grilled meat, meat stocks/bouillons, and cured hams) and seaweed.

Bolognese ragu

Yeast extracts which come with a umami taste have been successfully used in commercial Bolognese recipes

The combination of these foodstuffs, especially when concentrated or fermented in the case of cold meats, dried vegetables, reduced juices, and so on, intensifies the flavour, allowing the umami richness to stand out in a dish. The more umami-rich foods you combine, the stronger the umami flavour will be.